How Protest and Revolution Have Been Expressed Through the Fashion Industry
By Jess Ingham and Charli Davis
What is Protest Fashion?
Protest fashion, or fashion activism, is easily defined as the use of the fashion industry to promote certain political, social and environmental beliefs. Yet when diving a little deeper, it encompasses a whole world of political correctness. The fashion industry itself serves everyone, whether their intention is to participate in ‘trends’ or not, as clothing is vital to the fabric of society (pun intended).
Individuals use fashion to create a personal brand, to ‘be themselves,’ or even to be someone else in the eyes of the world. Further, the ebbs and flows of fashionable styles represent the deeper meaning of every culture and the way the world has changed to accommodate new beliefs and ideologies. A flamboyant statement of opinion worn by a celebrity to a major event or a small ironic slogan on a t-shirt sold to the masses can change the opinions of an entire generation.
Hailey Bieber wearing a t-shirt with the words ‘Nepo Baby’. Taken by paparazzi in 2023
Former Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) at the 2021 Met Gala wearing a dress with the words ‘Tax The Rich’
Protest Fashion Through the Ages
The French Revolution
The poor quality of life experienced by the lower-class people of 18th-century France under the Old Regime served as the driving force behind the French Revolution. They were more commonly known as the Sans-Culottes, which is literally translated to ‘without breeches’. To distinguish themselves from the aristocratic class, the Sans-Culottes wore full-length pants rather than the more commonly seen ‘breeches over stockings’ style of the upper class. This symbolic fashion statement separated the lower-class people and physically demonstrated their radical beliefs in opposition to the French hierarchy.
As the 20th century began, so too did a new era for women. The famous marches for women’s voting rights in Britain and the United States, known as the Suffragettes, is a dominant example of protest fashion. The Suffragettes used their clothing to present themselves as powerful and independent women of thought, specifically dressing for themselves and their own practicality rather than the ‘male gaze’. For example, the tight-boned corsets of the Victorian Era were traded for comfortable streamlined dresses and long pants which commanded respect and dignity as they protested. Furthermore, the colours purple, white and green (and gold for the US) were commonly used as symbols for the Suffragette movement, with white was especially being worn by members, as is still done so by feminists to this day.
The American Civil Rights Movement and Black Power
Throughout the 1950s and ‘60s as African Americans fought for their civil rights, they used fashion to present their ideas. Protestors often marched in ‘formal attire’ such as neat hair and well-pressed clothes, typically suits or button-down or collared shirts as well as dresses and stockings. This image combatted the idea of African Americans as ‘lazy or sloppy workers’ which was widespread in America at the time.
Further into the 1960s, feminism developed to protest against traditional standards for women and a foundation symbol of women’s liberation was created, the mini skirt. Similar to the symbol of white to Suffragettes, the shortened hem of the mini skirt began to be seen across the globe as a powerful rejection of the patriarchal dress codes and stigmatised sexualisation of women in short clothing. During this time, the iconic Miss America Protest of 1969 was a driving force of fashion feminism. It occurred at the site of the Miss America beauty pageant where activists protested unrealistic beauty standards and the objectification of women by throwing ‘female-orientated’ items, such as bras, lipsticks and high-heels in the ‘Freedom Trash Can’. This is where the idea of a ‘bra-burning’ feminist began.
Hippies and Anti-War Fashion
While the word ‘hippie’ might conjure up images of crazy tree-hugging vegans with dreadlocks, the history of Hippie clothing and ideologies started around the late 1960s and mid-1970s, specifically during the Vietnam War. To protest against the unethical American drafting system and the devasting consequences of the war, American civilians began an anti-war counterculture. The spreading of messages such as ‘Make love, not war’ were the foundation of the Hippie movement which continued to feature long hair, bell-bottomed pants and brightly coloured clothing. These fashion choices were made to oppose the rigid structure of the military and defy the standards of society. Another identifying factor of a Hippie or Anti-war supporter was a black armband, worn to mourn the lives lost during the Vietnam War.